The charity watchdog OSCR is not part of a conspiracy by the Scottish government to rob Shetland of its £200 million charitable trust, its chief executive David Robb insisted during a visit to the islands today.
That fear voiced by some councillors is as misplaced as the belief of others that the trust is “unique” and cannot legally be wrested from their grip.
After months of hostility from some councillor-trustees towards the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator the long-awaited face-to-face meeting took place in private at Islesburgh House and, according to both sides, was entirely cordial.
At one point in the three-year-long road to reform OSCR threatened to send in its own trustees to take control until constitutional change could be executed. The trust has since come to heel and finally submitted a firm plan last week to change its make-up. The new look is likely to take effect later this year if OSCR gives the seal of approval.
Mr Robb told The Shetland Times: “We’re encouraged that we now have a concrete reorganisation process in front of us – that’s a clear sign of progress from the charity. There has been a logjam for some time but now the wheels are in motion.”
Barring a flurry of significant objections during the consultation period to 19th April the trust will cease being open to all 22 councillors and their two independent trustees, being replaced by seven councillors and eight selected independents.
The proposal has had to survive several attempts at sabotage, including an aborted attempt to stage a referendum intended to garner public support for the status quo.
It emerged today that the traditionalists could yet mount one final defence if returned in sufficient numbers when the new council is elected in May. Mr Robb admitted they would still have time to persuade their colleagues on the trust to throw out the proposed reform. But such a move would only delay change a little longer, probably into 2013, because OSCR would immediately demand an acceptable alternative proposal.
Mr Robb said OSCR would be “very concerned about the loss of momentum” in the event of another change of mind in a process which had already dragged on and distracted the trust from its aims.
“I think there is an appetite across the community to move beyond this current discussion and put the trust on a sustainable basis going forward. There is a desire to see real progress and we certainly share that. So it would be a concern if there is further delay.”
A trust with a majority of non-councillor trustees will distance it from the council and help ensure that business can still be conducted if some councillor-trustees have a conflict of interest, are unable to act in the best interests of the charity and have to leave the meeting.
The independents are also seen as a way of acquiring trustees with specific expertise which could be useful to the charity.
But the issue of who would be selected and by whom is one of the biggest remaining bones of contention. In a last-gasp protest Shetland Islands Council voted on 8th February to ask the trust to rethink the proposal and hold elections for the independent eight instead.
However, trust chairman Bill Manson said he was not aware of any communication having arrived from the council since the vote.
OSCR declined to offer a view on the pros and cons of selection versus election, saying it was a matter for the trust. But Mr Robb said: “Whatever emerges from this process, I think the trust needs to rebuild public confidence and part of that process will be ensuring that the selection of new trustees is as transparent and fair and open a process as is possible.
“It is not a process we have a formal involvement in but given the concerns about aspects of the governance it is something we want to see done to a very high standard.”
It emerged today that the trust might have sailed merrily on as the council’s pet cash cow for a few more years had not some islanders begun firing off complaints to OSCR. With over 23,000 charities to watch over it had plenty on its hands but once its attention was drawn to Shetland it stayed under the microscope.
Complaints about the make-up of the trust began in 2008 in the wake of the council’s decision the previous year to transfer the controversial Viking Energy windfarm to the trust.
The pattern of islanders campaigning against their own public bodies, and against individual public figures, is a familiar one in Shetland over the past decade with streams of complaints to the European Commission, the local government ombudsman, Audit Scotland and other public watchdogs. Most complaints have been found to be groundless following investigation.
Whether or not the trust could have continued unreformed is academic now. According to Mr Manson there had been a will to change among some trustees as far back as 2003. He said trustees had been working on their own reform proposals but uncertainty about the impending new charities act led to decisions being deferred. Then the priority had switched to curbing trust spending, which had grown beyond the trust’s means. Only in recent years had minds returned to the question of reform.
The visit by Mr Robb and OSCR’s head of charity services Martin Tyson was the result of an invitation from the trust late last year.
Mr Robb said they had been happy to come up and convey to trustees that they fully understood the situation regarding the trust.
“We do respect the history and the tradition here,” he said. “There are aspects of the trust’s operations that are unusual and quite special and we can understand that. But it doesn’t give them an opt-out from charity law.”
He laughed off suggestions from some councillors that the Scottish government wanted to get its hands on the trust’s oil funds and that OSCR’s determination to loosen the council’s vice-like grip on the gold was the first step. He said: “I’m aware that that paranoia exists but there is no foundation for it. We’re not involved in any grand conspiracy.”
In addition to meeting the charitable trust and the media, OSCR said it offered to talk to council convener Sandy Cluness and councillor Jonathan Wills, who both resigned as trustees in protest at the intended reforms. Dr Wills did have his own session.
Prominent trust reform campaigner Billy Fox also got the chance to grill OSCR on Monday evening after a meeting with about 30 people from some of Shetland’s 280 charities and 700 voluntary groups under the auspices of Voluntary Action Shetland.
Mr Robb said it was great to see such a vibrant charity and voluntary sector.